Media Continues to Give Little Play to ‘Noncombat’ Deaths in Iraq–and Contractor Abuses

By: Greg Mitchell

(Commentary) For more than five years now, I have written often here about a subject that once got no coverage, and now gets far too little: so-called “noncombat” deaths among U.S. troops in Iraq. Included are those who die from illness, accidents and suicides. One case I have followed lately involves Cheryl Harris, whose son Ryan Maseth was electrocuted and died in Iraq not long ago.

You May remember: The military lied and told her he had carried an electrical appliance into the shower. I helped her trace a total of at least a dozen other electrocutions and she had been instrumental in getting Congress, and the Pentagon, to probe the issue — and she finally testified before Democrats (and some Republicans) in Congress yesterday.

She is also suing KBR, the contractors in charge, and two former KBR people also blew the whistle yesterday. Another mother, Larraine McGee, who lost a son in Iraq accused KBR of “homicide” yesterday.

“It is about time we got some answers … at long last,” said Sen. Robert Casey Jr., D-Pa. He released a letter to Gen. David Petraeus asking why his command had only recently ordered “theaterwide” technical inspections of military facilities despite being alerted to widespread wiring problems in Iraq installations more than three and a half years ago in a report filed by a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers safety specialist.

Cheryl Harris accused KBR yesterday of “extreme recklessness and a total disregard for public safety.” I’ve written so much about Cheryl and her heroic quest, let me concentrate here on the two former KBR electricians who accuse the company of shoddy and negligent management practices in its operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Debbie Crawford of Oregon, who worked for KBR in Baghdad, told the Senate Democratic Policy Committee that the company failed to provide its electricians with basic tools and equipment, and routinely farmed out jobs to local and “third-country” subcontractors who knew nothing about U.S. standards and often had no electrical experience at all.

“Time and time again we heard, ‘This is not the United States… OSHA doesn’t apply here. If you don’t like it, you can go home,'” she said.

Jeffery Bliss, who worked for KBR in Afghanistan, said the company was dominated by a “good-old-boy network” in which “communication was poor and professionalism nonexistent.” After he spending two and a half months at one base doing nothing he was finally assigned “the task of building a dog house.”

A third non-KBR witness, Rachel McNeill of Wisconsin, who served as an Army Reserves heavy construction equipment operator in Iraq, said soldiers in her unit often received shocks in shower facilities — but “it made no sense” to report the situation to KBR because the firm “had a reputation for taking a long time to address repairs.”

Besides Cheryl, another mother who lost a son to electrocution in Iraq testified. “Anger has taken over my grief,” said Larraine McGee of Texas.

She later told the AFP news service, “I don’t know that I want to go so far as to say they’re murdering our troops, but in essence if you take something that is so easy to fix but you don’t even though you know there’s a problem, that is homicide, in my mind.”

Cheryl Harris said her son’s “burnt and smoldering” body was discovered lying in electrified water on the shower stall floor by a soldier who kicked down the door to get in. “One of the soldiers who attempted to rescue Ryan was himself shocked,” she added, “because the electrical current was still running through the water in the pipes in Ryan’s bathroom….

“It is unacceptable that extreme recklessness and total disregard for public safety has deprived the Army of this exemplary young soldier and deprived my family of our son and brother.”

Members of the committee, which has held 17 hearings in the past two years on waste, fraud and abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan, accused the Pentagon of stonewalling congressional inquiries about its ongoing investigations of possible negligence on the part of the its main construction contractor in Iraq and Afghanistan — Kellogg, Brown and Root.

The hearing was titled “Contractor Misconduct and the Electrocution Deaths of American Soldiers in Iraq.” KBR officials were invited to the hearing but did not attend.
Greg Mitchell’s book “So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits — and the President — Failed on Iraq” includes several chapters on “nonhostile” deaths in Iraq.

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